Dracula, a tribute
This week (May 26th to be exact) marks the 125th anniversary of the release of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. It went on sale for the first time in London bookshops on that day in 1897. Since (to me) that novel introduced what would become the single, most popular and influential character in popular culture, I thought it deserved some kind of dedication. So, here is a special post dedicated to the Prince of Darkness with special attention to several of his film incarnations.
The Popularity of Dracula
Irish-born, Bram Stoker wrote his immortal novel, Dracula in 1897 in Victorian England. Although it was not the first novel written about vampires, it was the first widely read and mainstream book about the vampire lore. One very distinct aspect of this book is that its popularity transcends its time as it has continued to develop in all forms of media for over a century. The novel has, as descendants to its bloodline, innumerable movies, television shows, books, magazines, music and ultimately, an entire culture. The novel’s main character, Count Dracula is eternally resurrected in film and fiction, as well as in myth.
Through the years, Count Dracula has changed form and age but his trademark cape, pale skin, slender tall stature, sharp white teeth, slicked black hair and widow’s peak will always be characteristics associated with him. And many of these characteristics are a direct result of Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931, Universal Studios masterpiece. Although Dracula has gone through many modernizations in order to appeal to a changing society, it is Lugosi’s Dracula that has become an indelible figure haunting the popular imagination since the film’s release. Tod Browning version of Dracula remains the most famous and recognizable version of Bram Stoker’s novel.
Browning’s 1931 film was so successful that it, almost single-handedly, rescued Universal Studios from folding, rendering the studio profitable for the first time in a few years. More importantly, that film established talking horror movies as a popular and profitable genre. Lugosi’s quintessential Dracula set the stage for all the fictional vampires that followed. Certainly Bela Lugosi’s elegance has become a trademark of Count Dracula, although knowing the actor’s career in retrospect, that elegance is not what defines it beyond this particular character. From the 1950’s onward, Lugosi’s image as Dracula has graced a staggering number of consumer goods, including jewelry, card games, decals, tattoos, costumes, greeting cards, figurines, clothing, puzzles, candy, comic books, and even models made by a company named Aurora. By the 1960’s, Dracula had become so marketable that putting his image on just about anything would guarantee huge sales of that item. Film historian David Skal said, “Dracula is the most media friendly, fictional character of the 20th century, if not all time.”
The late 1950’s saw a resurgence of interest in anything monster. The center of the resurgence became television showings of classic horror movies ensuring that a whole new generation familiarized themselves with all the Universal monsters, with Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster leading the pack. The 1960’s also saw the development of popular television series like The Munsters, which featured a grandpa named Sam Dracula (a name that is mentioned in only one episode) as the show parodied the American nuclear family.
Although there are many recreations of Dracula between 1931 and 1958, 1958 was the year that saw a real rebirth of Dracula’s popularity. In 1957, England’s Hammer Studios produced The Curse of Frankenstein, the first in a series of loose revisits of the monsters featured in Universal Studio’s 1930’s horror classics. The huge success of that film led Hammer to quickly tackle Frankenstein’s chief rival as the screen’s greatest monster, Dracula. The result was Horror of Dracula in 1958 – this time Lugosi’s Count was recreated by Christopher Lee in a role that, not unlike Lugosi, would define Lee’s career and make him a star. Lee would go on to star in seven films for Hammer Studios as the blood sucking count.Many Dracula aficionados consider Lee’s portrayal of Dracula the best. Although Lugosi’s version has had the longest lasting impact, Lee’s depiction of the prince of darkness is the most popular to horror movie fans. Many consider Horror of Dracula a masterpiece.
In researching the why of Dracula’s popularity, I encountered reasons ranging from Freudian undertones to the embodiment of women’s fantasies to repressed homosexuality issues to the soul of good versus evil. Because I didn’t want to delve that deeply or write a dissertation about this topic, I am writing my own theory for the continuing popularity of this character. Simply said, I just think he is highly entertaining. A reason I don’t think is of any lesser value than the other much more complicated ones. Certainly, with few exceptions, in most depictions of Dracula he is charming and often sexy. Also, always present is the battle between good and evil. However, most horror films feature this conflict and the subject’s popularity does not continue and grow for over a hundred years. No, these are not the reasons. In my opinion, Dracula’s popularity has to do with the fact that he appears normal, he does not look like a monster; in fact, he often belongs to the upper crust of society. He is not an outcast like many other famous movie monsters; instead, we embrace him and invite him into our lives. And this ability he has to adapt to our regular lives (of course only at night) makes him both dangerous and fascinating. Theoretically he can be anybody. So, his everlasting capacity to be among us will give him the license to frighten and entertain us forever.
What follows here are commentaries on several of the Dracula incarnations in film. I tried to make choices that would illustrate how Dracula is depicted through the 20th Century and to narrow it to the few I felt made some impact on audiences or on other films. These are my personal opinions and any reference to characters, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names have not been changed to protect the undead. Consider yourself warned that spoilers lie in this lair.
Dracula – 1931. Tod Browning, Director
“I bid you welcome” – that’s how Dracula welcomes Renfield into his Abbey, and how we are welcomed into his world. As mentioned above, Lugosi and Dracula are so synonymous that we can’t think of one without the other. The image of Bela Lugosi playing this character has somehow crossed into our subconscious.
Made in the early years of talking pictures, this film has much in common with silent films. There are many instances where there is silence for prolonged periods of time. This is not surprising given the fact that its director, Tod Browning, had made silent films for most of his career. In fact, when Dracula was first released many theaters were still not equipped to feature talkies so in many instances it was featured as a silent film and shown with subtitles.
I imagine that at the time of its initial release, Dracula was considered scary but by today’s standards it’s very tame. However, I admit I scare easily and there are a few instances here that I find creepy, including Lugosi as the Count. The way Browning shot the character – the unique face, often in darkness and the fact Lugosi doesn’t have visible fangs makes this quite disturbing to me. Also jolting, in a classic, creepy sort of way is Dwight Frye and his portrayal of Renfield. Mr. Frye is, in fact, the only multi-faceted actor in this movie. The Renfield character here makes me quite uncomfortable, to put it mildly – his deranged laugh and his demeanor, as we see him lose touch with reality as the film progresses. Or, lose touch with reality is what his doctors think is happening to him – we know better. I think he’s quite good, considering all of the acting is very theatrical, from the delivery of the lines to the very deliberate movement of the actors. Still, I am very fond of this film, a great cinematic achievement for its time.
Having praised what I like about this film, there are many technical aspects of this movie that I don’t like, although I did try to take the fact that it was made in 1931 into consideration. The editing is choppy, at best – whenever we see the coffin door opening there’s always quite an abrupt cut to a long shot of Lugosi, as though otherwise we wouldn’t know who was in the coffin. Cuts between scenes are often done in the same abrupt manner. I also find the camera movement less than smooth as in the scene where we see the coffin for the first time. The camera pans forward to a close-up of the coffin and it is not a smooth transition from one point to the next. Having said all that, however, Dracula still compelled me to keep watching.
As a whole this 1931 version of Dracula is moody, in the good sense of the word, which is a little surprising because there is no music whatsoever (which adds to its creepiness, by the way). Music is usually added to a film to enhance mood or add drama. Here, everything had to be done visually, which is, in my opinion, due to exceptional cinematography for that time, once the problems with editing mentioned above are pushed aside. The outdoor cinematography/photography in particular is quite good, the best example being the famous opening sequence when we see the carriage coming through the mountains. I think the fog and lighting for the outdoor shots were nicely done and set the right mood. Although I can’t imagine any of it was actually filmed outdoors because of when it was made. But, despite all that, there is only one real reason to watch and enjoy this movie, Bela Lugosi. I’m not quite sure if he’s more familiar than good in this role but he is an undeniable presence. His acting is overly dramatic, his movements are theatrical and exaggerated, even when we see the shots of his tense fingers (I’m assuming those are his fingers) opening the coffins – but I couldn’t wait until he appeared in the next scene. He delivers his lines in a choppy manner with that great, indistinguishable accent that simply works. The extreme close-ups of his “Dracula” eyes, which look as if they are lit with a penlight, as he makes people do his bidding, are just unforgettable.
In my opinion this movie is just for fun, though it does have undeniable value, the proof of which is in its lasting popularity. Dracula is a rare example of that complete communion that happens once in a long while when the role, the actor and the time are perfect for one another. There is a line said by Van Helsing in the movie that goes, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” Well, in Lugosi’s case his strength is that we do.
Dracula – 1931 – Spanish Version. George Melford, Director
I watched this movie only because I was curious about it. It was filmed simultaneously with the Browning version of Dracula. Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi and the rest of the cast and crew filmed by day and this Spanish version filmed all night. They used the exact sets and exact script, strictly translated into Spanish. Originally, the filmmakers intended to simply dub the Lugosi film into Spanish. However, the dubbing process was in its inception and it proved too difficult a task. So, Universal decided to simultaneously film Dracula in Spanish using popular Hispanic actors of the time.
As in the Tod Browning version, the acting in this one is more set for a stage than for a film. Here too you see the exaggerated theatrical movements and reactions but in this case it doesn’t work at all. I never appreciated Bela Lugosi’s performance in the English language film more than after I saw a couple of minutes of Carlos Villarias on screen as Dracula. He seems to mimic Lugosi in every movement, including the tense fingers opening the coffin (unless they used the exact same shots of someone’s fingers opening the coffin, which is a possibility). The director of this film, George Melford was delighted with the fact that Villarias closely resembled Bela Lugosi. There is a scene in this film where the Count is walking through the streets of London. This scene was discarded by Browning and picked up by Melford and inserted into his movie, so it is Bela Lugosi we see, which is really interesting. I confess I didn’t notice the difference. However, in all the scenes where I could see who was playing Dracula I could not get out of my mind that Mr. Villarias is the spitting image of a young Carl Reiner in costume during his days on Sid Caesar’s show. I just didn’t buy him in the role. But I think I’m in the minority in that regard.
There is one major thing that stands out in this film in contrast to the other. It is, by far, technically superior to Tod Browning’s Dracula. Lupita Tovar, who plays Eva (the Mina counterpart) in this version, was interviewed in regards to the making of the movie. She said that the crew would often see the footage that had been shot during the day on Browning’s film before they shot their movie each night. If so, they took advantage of what they saw and improved on it. The indoor cinematography is better in this film as is the camera work. The scenes that take place outdoors during the day are lit to look like daylight; in Browning’s film you can barely tell when it’s daylight. Camera movements flow a lot better, or are not as jumpy, and the editing doesn’t seem quite as abrupt as in the other version. The scene with the missing reflection in the mirror was improved upon from the other film in that they have Eva’s character move while we see her reflection and not the Count’s. This small change makes it a lot more effective. The final scene in this Spanish version is filmed quite nicely also. There is a really nice wide shot of the long staircase as Dracula carries Eva and Renfield begs for his life. Unfortunately, the cuts are to close-ups of Villarias’ face, rather than Lugosi’s far more engaging one.
House of Dracula – 1945. Erle C. Kenton, Director
The writers of horror movies at Universal studios had exhausted every conceivable original idea for new horror stories for their monsters when they came up with the idea of combining the most famous creatures into one feature film. Eventually they went on to exhaust those stories as well escalating from two monsters to three to four and so forth. In House of Frankenstein they used five of their most famous monsters and the results were successful box office receipts. So, why not do it again? So they did. Although House of Dracula is considered a superior sequel to House of Frankenstein, it doesn’t work for me at all. Except, of course, for the fact that these monsters are a part of my family.
Here we have Count Dracula, the long-suffering Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster (played by horror veteran/classic, Glenn Strange), a hunch back reminiscent of Igor but named Nina, the requisite doctor who also turns into a Jekyll and Hyde character and even angry villagers. None of it works, not even for fun. The story is terrible – Dracula calls himself Baron Latos in order to hide his true identity. The doctor lives in Dracula’s castle and gives Dracula blood transfusions in order to cure his “condition.” The Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising his famous role here, comes to the doctor so that he too can be cured. During one of the full moons, which apparently happens every other day in the ‘40’s, the Wolf Man runs into an underwater cave trying to kill himself. The doctor follows and they subsequently run into a sleeping Frankenstein’s Monster. After the Doctor becomes infected with Dracula’s blood (Dracula reverses one of the transfusions forcing his blood into the doctor) he turns into a Jekyll and Hyde-type person, which leads him to revitalize the Monster. This is when all hell is supposed to break loose, but it never does.
There is never a scary moment in this movie. John Carradine, a great actor, is a terrible Count Dracula, in my opinion. They try to recreate the close-ups of his eyes that became famous with Lugosi but it doesn’t work –not menacing at all. I did enjoy seeing Lon Chaney, Jr. turn into the Wolf Man and back again in the same way I would have enjoyed seeing an old friend – these moments result in the only ones I really enjoy in this movie. That is, as a fan of horror. For all those with a fondness for these characters and/or for glorious cheesiness, this is a must see.
As far as cinema’s advancements there are clues in this Dracula entry – the credits are fancier than in the older movies mentioned above. They seem to melt onto the screen so fancier graphics are now being used. And also there are nice effects used to show Count Dracula turning into the bat, both in shadow and in front of the camera. In the earlier films we saw the bat and then a quick cut to the Count and vice versa.
I chose to mention this movie here because I wanted to include a film featuring Dracula made in the 1940’s. It turned out to be a very good choice because it is a Dracula milestone of sorts. This film was Universal Studios’ shortest running horror film and a final farewell to their most famous monstrous creations. House of Dracula ended a generation of monster movies that once dominated the screen.
Horror of Dracula – 1958. Terence Fisher, Director
This movie is leaps and bounds from the 1931 version and all subsequent Universal Studio endeavors to try to recreate Dracula on screen to this point, though a comparison is really unfair. From the opening sequence when the camera pans into a close-up of the coffin where Dracula’s name is engraved we get a good idea of what’s to come. The really deep red, Technicolor blood that drips on the letters is somewhat of a shock if what you’re used to seeing are those benign black and white films. We know we are not going to see Universal’s Dracula here.
Our first view of Christopher Lee (as the Count) is one where he’s standing at the top of the long, wide staircase in his castle. He looks menacing from the start. But as he approaches us, we see what Dracula is to become from that moment on. Yes, he is imposing – tall with the long, flowing cape, but he’s also extremely handsome. In stark contrast, the first time we see the count with his fangs out (and I should note this is the first movie where I actually see fangs of those discussed so far) is the complete opposite of his handsome entrance, which is why this Dracula is so scary – it’s a very dramatic cut to his face which now has red, blood-shot eyes with blood along the rims, a wide open mouth with blood dripping down the sides, long fangs. And, he hisses! This is why this Dracula is so scary – he’s dreamy one minute and a nightmare the next. Unforgettable.
The story in this film begins with the arrival of Jonathan Harker in a different role than that character plays in previous Dracula incarnations. Here, Harker sets out to destroy Dracula from the beginning. He arrives at the castle with the pretext of being the Count’s librarian. Immediately we find out that he knows Dracula’s true identity and that he plans to destroy him that very night. Of course, Mr. Harker doesn’t make it through the next 24 hours. Enter Dr. Van Helsing, played here by Peter Cushing. Van Helsing shows up looking for Harker, his partner and friend – then the real fun begins.
As far as horror movies go this one does the trick but it varies away from the original Dracula movie in key points I really enjoy. For instance, missing here is the requisite scene I am used to where he would say “I never drink…wine” or some variation thereof. In fact, Lee doesn’t have much dialogue at all. There is no dinner party where he’s welcomed. In this case everyone knows who he is from the beginning and even where his coffins are. In this movie Dracula’s lair has an open door policy and it keeps changing location. There is no “no reflection in the mirror” scene and they hint to the fact that his ability to turn into a bat or wolf is but a fallacy. What they do give us is plenty of scary music in just the right spots, in case you don’t know when the doom is actually coming, the music reminds you to start biting your nails, or when to start scrounging for garlic.
Another aspect of the Hammer film I like is the new, improved sensuality of Dracula – in comparison to the earlier films. There is a definite change in the women that he bites that goes beyond the growing of their fangs. They go from pure innocence to a, shall we say, more mature demeanor. They await him with an overt sexual longing. In the scene when he goes in to bite Mina, we see him kiss and caress her for a moment before he goes in for the bite.
Dracula dies as a result of the sun’s rays in this film in a spectacular ending. In earlier films the count dies off screen. Here, he turns into dust in a most cinematic fashion. Very exciting, I must say.
This 1958 Hammer Studios production is credited with reshaping the face of horror movies forever and I can see why. It was the first to show horror in a graphic, colorful style. Horror of Dracula spawned seven sequels and is really responsible for resurrecting the nearly extinct Universal monsters, which made resurgence after the release of this film.
Dracula Has Risen from The Grave – 1968. Freddie Francis, Director
Commercially, this film was the most successful of the Hammer Studio series featuring Dracula. Christopher Lee returns for his third portrayal of the beastly Dracula and this is Hammer’s fourth installment in the 8-film series.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was produced ten years after the Horror of Dracula and there is much about it that improved from the first, although most horror fans would disagree. I’ll admit I have a soft spot for this one. It is the version I remember seeing most on television as a child. I lost plenty of sleep just from the classic TV promos where a booming voice would announce, “DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.” No doubt the title is very effective, given I could swear I’d scene this monster killed before.
OK, back to the film. The sets are much nicer in Risen than they were in Horror of Dracula. In particular a rooftop set that we see throughout the film. The music is much improved – it is more suspenseful and sounds much more like a score throughout the entire film rather than the occasional sudden sound used to shock. Christopher Lee has more lines to speak in this film than in the other. However, all the lines he does speak are commands, it seems. He is brutal and erotic but there is no romance to this Dracula.
The story here is more compelling than in the first Hammer film because of the addition of religion, however, I don’t find the script much better. Although Dracula stories are always about good versus evil the addition of several religious figures adds to the depth of the story here. Dracula’s main nemesis is a Monsignor, the person he hypnotizes to do his bidding is a priest, and Dracula does not die from a simple stake through the heart, unless it is accompanied by prayer – so Hammer expanded the Dracula folklore and myth in this one.
Despite these differences though, we see many familiar things that we saw in Horror of Dracula. For instance, there is plenty of that bright red “Hammer” blood to go around and in many instances it is dripping from his mouth. His eyes are again really blood shot, especially when he is in biting mode, and the fangs are a little longer and more menacing. He still doesn’t turn into a bat or a wolf and there is no mention that he has the ability to do so.
The final battle in this film lacks some of the face-to-face combat essentials that add to the drama and so Paul, the character who is trying to destroy Dracula never seems to be in real peril. However, I like the ending in this film overall – Dracula falls off a balcony and onto a big crucifix and is impaled. He fights ferociously to save himself when the priest starts to pray – against the power of prayer Dracula has no hope. This installment is less scary to me than the first despite the improvements I mention here, which leads me to believe that Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the character creates much of the tension in Horror of Dracula. He is not present in much of this film but we spend a lot of time waiting to be scared by him. This element is missing here for me.
Dracula – 1979. John Badham, Director
This version of Dracula is Universal’s third and last attempt to remake this classic film (including the 1931 Spanish version). Universal had owned the rights to this story since 1930 and had wanted to do a remake for some time. This film suffered from bad reviews and bad box office receipts when it was released. I believe this is probably due to two factors, the first being that the new generation of Dracula fans, who were all used to the Christopher Lee interpretation, expected more of the blood and gore that the Hammer films were famous for. The second reason could be that a month earlier saw the release of Love at First Bite, a spoof on the Dracula films. This comedy makes fun of all things Dracula and was pretty successful. As a result, there was little chance that this film would be taken seriously.
I, however, take it seriously and admit it is a favorite. I’ll start with the fact that it features a great score. The music here is different, more sophisticated and, in my opinion, more effective than the typical “horror” music used in the Hammer films. The sets are really lavish and gothic with huge gargoyles with mouths ajar serving as doorways. I also think the cinematography is very good.
In this 1979 version we have the old, familiar story, as it follows the 1931 version pretty closely. Dracula turns into a bat, a wolf and even smoke, as he justifiably should. The script, which is much improved from the original, has many clever lines – and includes some old favorites for traditionalists like me, like “I never drink…wine.” Aside from the familiar, however, this Dracula film adds several new things. The Count can now crawl up and down walls (taken directly from Stoker’s book) and this is plenty scary and even shocking when we first see it. He can move around in the daytime, given he’s gotten enough rest and there is darkness inside. And, he even grabs a cross with no ill effect.
But, the one aspect of this film that I like best, which is probably the thing that “real” horror movie fans dislike most, is that we now have a really romantic and somewhat sad and tragic figure in Dracula. Frank Langella plays a suave, debonair, man of the world, gentleman who also does savage things. He has mesmerizing/hypnotizing eyes and a great voice and never do we see him with fangs or blood dripping from his mouth. In this version of Dracula, we see as much a love story as we do a horror film. And the horror is there! I’ve yet to see a scarier scene in the other movies than the one where Mina Van Helsing (yes, Mina is Val Helsing’s daughter in this version) tries to attack her own father, she looks really terrible and is walking towards him, with outstretched arms whimpering “Papa” and then as she gets closer she starts chanting in a foreign tongue. I had to turn the volume down. It’s worth mentioning that Van Helsing is played by the legendary, Laurence Olivier.
In my opinion, this is a more complete film than the previous ones I’ve discussed. There is a real story with real feelings. This movie was deliberately made a more romantic film than the others and it does successfully get away from the Hammer look. I see nothing wrong with that and welcome the change. There is no question that this is a Dracula to fear but he is also a Dracula to comfort – with an occasional swoon mixed in. Perhaps a bit of a “girly” commentary but so be it.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula – 1992. Francis Ford Coppola, Director
This 1992 version of Dracula is the final installment I’ll discuss. By the time this film was released, needless to say, Dracula had starred in many features. Coppola actually considered titling this film, “D” to distinguish it from previous adaptations of Stoker’s novel.
In my opinion, it is the final film in the 20th century featuring Dracula that made an impact. To date, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the most expensive film to ever be made that features Dracula. This film is lavish, extravagant, and takes a stab at telling the complete story as Bram Stoker wrote it, although critics say it does take a lot from the previous 90 years of the Dracula legend directly from Hollywood.
Gary Oldman is wonderful as Dracula in this 1992 production. Then again, Oldman is great in anything he does, in case anyone was wondering. His look in this film, as the ancient Count is not appealing, to say the least but it works along with the look of the rest of the film. I really like the fact they go into the past connecting his love from centuries before.
In Coppola’s version Dracula is again a tragic and tortured soul. His actions in this film are never guided by revenge as they were for Hammer’s Dracula or by the taste for blood as in other versions – here he does it all for love, though his character is in no way just romantic. From the beginning we see him as an evil man. In fact, his journey begins as Prince Dracula as a Vlad the Impaler character in military battle (Vlad the Impaler is credited with giving Bram Stoker the inspiration to write his book). The beginning to this story in this movie sets it aside from all the rest.
This film does show Dracula as wolf and then as a hideous-looking bat/human creature. But different from the earlier films is that we see him midway through transformations like a scene where he is seducing Lucy, when he is half wolf/beast and half human. The result is scary.
This film works on many levels. I think Coppola intended to make much more than a Dracula film and he succeeds. Not that the original story doesn’t lend itself to richness, because it does. And this film has a good script and the look of the entire movie says they had a huge budget to work with. I admit that my preference for a Dracula story is the much simpler one we are accustomed to, however there is no doubt this is a good film all around. Anthony Hopkins is great as Van Helsing and even adds some depth to previous incarnations of this character. In this version, Van Helsing is not only the one out to get Dracula but he also has demons of his own to contend with. This film has two major negatives, by my estimation. The performances delivered by both Keanu Reeves as Harker and Winona Rider as Dracula’s long lost and resurrected love, Mina. Let’s just say, not good.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is far from being one of the best films the director has made. However, I think the film is a nice reincarnation of the Dracula legend overall. It attempts to take a serious look at Bram Stoker’s novel and present a new depiction of the legend. That’s never an easy task when that legend has lived amongst us in film for seven decades.
Where the Dracula legend will go from here is anyone’s guess. But I think we can all rest assured we have a lot to see and hear from the prince of darkness – whatever form he may take. Regardless, I’ll probably watch no matter what and where – testament to Bram Stoker’s inspiration in writing a novel for all times. I know I am not alone.